Lyndon Baines Johnson (August 27, 1908 – January 22, 1973), often referred to as LBJ, was the thirty-sixth President of the United States (1963-1969). He was also the thirty-seventh Vice President of the United States (1961-1963).
A Democrat, Johnson succeeded to the presidency following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and after completing Kennedy's term was elected President in his own right in a landslide victory in the 1964 Presidential election. Johnson was a major leader of the Democratic Party and as President was responsible for designing the "Great Society" legislation that included civil rights laws, Medicare (government funded health care for the elderly), Medicaid (government funded health care for the poor), aid to education, and the "War on Poverty." Simultaneously, he escalated the American involvement in the Vietnam War from 16,000 American soldiers in 1963 to 550,000 in early 1968.
Johnson served as a United States Representative from Texas from 1937–1949 and as United States Senator [just as his grandfather foretold when LBJ was just an infant] from 1949–1960, including six years as United States Senate Majority Leader, two as Senate Minority Leader and two as Senate Majority Whip. After campaigning unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination in 1960, Johnson was selected by John F. Kennedy to be his running-mate for the 1960 presidential election. Johnson's popularity as President steadily declined after the 1966 Congressional elections, and his reelection bid in the 1968 United States presidential election collapsed as a result of turmoil within the Democratic party related to opposition to the Vietnam War. He withdrew from the race to concentrate on peacemaking. Johnson was renowned for his domineering personality and the "Johnson treatment," his arm-twisting of powerful politicians.
Johnson died after suffering his third heart attack, on January 22, 1973.
The President's grandfather Samuel Ealy Johnson, Sr. was raised as a Baptist. Subsequently, in his early manhood, he became a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). In his later years he became a Christadelphian. According to Lady Bird Johnson, President Johnson's father also joined the Christadelphian Church toward the end of his life. Later, as a politician LBJ was influenced in his attitude towards the Jews by the religious beliefs that his family, especially his grandfather, had shared with him (see Operation Texas).
Johnson was born near Stonewall, Texas, on August 27, 1908, in a small farmhouse in a poor area on the Pedernales River. His parents, Samuel Ealy Johnson, Jr. and the former Rebekah Baines, had three girls and two boys: LBJ and his brother, Sam Houston Johnson (1914-1978), and sisters Rebekah (1910–1978), Josefa (1912–1961), and Lucia (1916–1997). The nearby small town of Johnson City, Texas was named after LBJ's father's cousin, James Polk Johnson, whose forebears had moved west from Georgia. In school, Johnson was an awkward, talkative youth and was elected president of his eleventh-grade class. He graduated from Johnson City High School in 1924. In 1925, he worked as an elevator operator in downtown San Bernardino, California.
In 1926, Johnson enrolled in Southwest Texas State Teachers' College (now Texas State University-San Marcos). He worked his way through school, participated in debate and campus politics, edited the school newspaper, dropped out of school in 1927 and returned one year later, graduating in 1930. The college years refined his skills of persuasion and political organization. In 1927 Johnson taught mostly Mexican children at the Welhausen School in Cotulla, some ninety miles south of San Antonio in La Salle County. In 1930 he taught in Pearsall High School in Pearsall, Texas and afterwards took a position as teacher of public speaking at Sam Houston High School in Houston. When he returned to San Marcos in 1965, after having signed the Higher Education Act, Johnson looked back:
Johnson married Claudia Alta Taylor (already nicknamed "Lady Bird") of Karnack, Texas on November 17, 1934 after having attended Georgetown University Law School for several months. They had two daughters, Lynda Bird, born in 1944, and Luci Baines, born in 1947. Johnson enjoyed giving people and animals his own initials; his daughters' given names are examples, as was his dog, Little Beagle Johnson.
In 1935, he was appointed head of the Texas National Youth Administration, which enabled him to use the government to create education and job opportunities for young people. He resigned two years later to run for Congress. Johnson was a notoriously tough boss throughout his career, often demanding long workdays and work on weekends, and Johnson himself worked as hard as any member of his staff.
President Roosevelt found Johnson to be a welcome ally and conduit for information, particularly with regards to issues concerning internal politics in Texas (Operation Texas) and the machinations of Vice President Garner and Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn. Johnson was immediately appointed to the Naval Affairs Committee. He worked for rural electrification and other improvements for his district. Johnson steered the projects towards contractors that he personally knew, such as the Brown Brothers, Herman and George, who would finance much of Johnson's future career. In 1941, he ran for the U.S. Senate in a special election against the sitting Governor of Texas, radio personality W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel in an election marked by massive fraud on the part of both campaigns. Johnson was not expected to win against the popular governor, but he ran a strong race and was declared the winner in unofficial returns - ultimately losing due to controversial official returns.
Johnson reported to General Douglas MacArthur in Australia. Johnson and two Army officers went to the 22nd Bomb Group base, which was assigned the high risk mission of bombing the Japanese airbase at Lae in New Guinea. A colonel took Johnson's original seat on one bomber, and it was shot down with no survivors. Reports vary on what happened to the B-26 Marauder carrying Johnson. Some accounts say it was also attacked by Japanese fighters but survived, while others, including other members of the flight crew, claim it turned back due to generator trouble before reaching the objective and before encountering enemy aircraft and never came under fire, which is supported by official flight records. Other airplanes that continued to the target did come under fire near the target at about the same time that Johnson's plane was recorded as having landed back at the original airbase. MacArthur awarded LBJ the Silver Star, the military's third-highest medal, although it is notable that no other members of the flight crew were awarded medals, and it is unclear what Johnson could have done in his role purely as an "observer" to deserve the medal, even if his aircraft had seen combat.
Johnson's biographer, Robert Caro, stated, "The most you can say about Lyndon Johnson and his Silver Star is that it is surely one of the most undeserved Silver Stars in history. Because if you accept everything that he said, he was still in action for no more than 13 minutes and only as an observer. Men who flew many missions, brave men, never got a Silver Star."
Johnson reported back to Roosevelt, to the Navy leaders, and to Congress that conditions were deplorable and unacceptable. He argued the South West Pacific urgently needed a higher priority and a larger share of war supplies. The warplanes sent there, for example, were "far inferior" to Japanese planes, and morale was bad. He told Forrestal that the Pacific Fleet had a "critical" need for 6,800 additional experienced men. Johnson prepared a twelve-point program to upgrade the effort in the region, stressing "greater cooperation and coordination within the various commands and between the different war theaters." Congress responded by making Johnson chairman of a high-powered subcommittee of the Naval Affairs committee. With a mission similar to that of the Truman Committee in the Senate, he probed into the peacetime "business as usual" inefficiencies that permeated the naval war and demanded that admirals shape up and get the job done. However, Johnson went too far when he proposed a bill that would crack down on the draft exemptions of shipyard workers if they were absent from work too often. Organized labor blocked the bill and denounced Johnson. Still, Johnson's mission had a substantial impact because it led to upgrading the South Pacific theater and aided the overall war effort immensely. Johnson’s biographer concludes, "The mission was a temporary exposure to danger calculated to satisfy Johnson's personal and political wishes, but it also represented a genuine effort on his part, however misplaced, to improve the lot of America's fighting men.
However, the state Democratic convention upheld Johnson. Stevenson went to court, but — with timely help from his friend Abe Fortas — Johnson prevailed. Johnson was elected senator in November, and went to Washington, D.C. tagged with the ironic label "Landslide Lyndon," which he often used deprecatingly to refer to himself.
Johnson was appointed to the Senate Armed Services Committee, and later in 1950, he helped create the Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee. Johnson became its chairman and conducted investigations of defense costs and efficiency. These investigations tended to dig out old forgotten investigations and demand actions that were already being taken by the Truman Administration, although it can be said that the committee's investigations caused the changes. However, Johnson's brilliant handling of the press, the efficiency with which his committee issued new reports, and the fact that he ensured every report was endorsed unanimously by the committee all brought him headlines and national attention.
In January 1953, Johnson was chosen by his fellow Democrats to be the minority leader. Thus, he became the least senior Senator ever elected to this position, and one of the least senior party leaders in the history of the Senate. The whip is usually first in line to replace party leader (e.g., most recently whip Harry Reid became Senate Minority Leader after Tom Daschle's defeat).
One of his first actions was to eliminate the seniority system in appointment to a committee, while retaining it in terms of chairmanships. In the 1954 election, Johnson was re-elected to the Senate, and since the Democrats won the majority in the Senate, Johnson became majority leader. LBJ's duties were to schedule legislation and help pass measures favored by the Democrats. He, Rayburn and President Dwight D. Eisenhower worked smoothly together in passing Eisenhower's domestic and foreign agenda. As Majority Leader, Johnson was responsible for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first civil rights legislation passed by the Senate since Reconstruction.
Historians Caro and Dallek consider Lyndon Johnson the most effective Senate majority leader in history. He was unusually proficient at gathering information. One biographer suggests he was "the greatest intelligence gatherer Washington has ever known", discovering exactly where every Senator stood, his philosophy and prejudices, his strengths and weaknesses, and what it took to win him over. Robert Baker claimed that Johnson would occasionally send senators on NATO trips in order to avoid their dissenting votes. Central to Johnson's control was "The Treatment", described by two journalists:
Tip O'Neill, then a representative from Kennedy's home state of Massachusetts, recalled that Johnson approached him at the convention and said, "Tip, I'd like to have you with me on the second ballot." O'Neill, understanding the influence of the Kennedy name, replied, "Senator, there's not going to be any second ballot.
During the convention, Kennedy designated Johnson as his choice for Vice President. Some later reports (such as Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.'s) say that Kennedy offered the position to Johnson as a courtesy and did not expect him to accept. Others (such as W. Marvin Watson) say that the Kennedy campaign was desperate to win the 1960 election against Richard Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., and needed Johnson on the ticket to help carry Southern states.
According to other sources, Kennedy did not want Johnson to be his running-mate and Vice President, and did not even want to ask him. JFK's reported choice was Symington. Johnson, however, decided to seek the Vice Presidency and with Speaker Rayburn's help pressured Kennedy to give him a spot.
At the same time as his Vice Presidential run, Johnson also sought a third term in the U.S. Senate. According to Robert Caro, "On November 5, 1960, Lyndon Johnson won election for both the vice presidency of the United States, on the Kennedy-Johnson ticket, and for a third term as Senator (he had Texas law changed to allow him to run for both offices). When he won the vice presidency, he made arrangements to resign from the Senate, as he was required to do under federal law, as soon as it convened on January 3, 1961. (In 1988, Lloyd Bentsen, the Vice Presidential running mate of Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, and also a Senator from Texas, took advantage of "Lyndon's law," and was able to retain his seat in Senate despite Dukakis' loss to George H. W. Bush. The same went for Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut in 2000 after Al Gore lost to George W. Bush.)
Johnson was reelected Senator with 1,306,605 votes (58 percent) to Republican John Tower's 927,653 (41.1 percent). Fellow Democrat William A. Blakley was appointed to replace Johnson as Senator, but Blakley lost a special election in May 1961 to Tower.
After the election, Johnson found himself powerless. Despite Kennedy's efforts to have Johnson busy, informed, and at the White House often, his advisors and even some of his family were dismissive to the Texan. Kennedy appointed him to nominal jobs such as head of the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunities, through which he worked with African Americans and other minorities. Though Kennedy probably intended this to remain a nominal position, Taylor Branch in Pillar of Fire contends that Johnson served to force the Kennedy administration's actions for civil rights further and faster than Kennedy intended to go. Branch notes the irony of Johnson, who the Kennedy family hoped would appeal to conservative southern voters, being the advocate for civil rights. In particular he notes Johnson's Memorial Day 1963 speech at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania as being a catalyst, that led to much more action than otherwise would have occurred.
Johnson took on numerous minor diplomatic missions, which gave him limited insights into international issues. He was allowed to observe Cabinet and National Security Council meetings. Kennedy did give Johnson control over all presidential appointments involving Texas, and he was appointed chairman of the President's Ad Hoc Committee for Science. When, in April 1961, the Soviets beat the U.S. with the first manned spaceflight, Kennedy tasked Johnson with coming up with a 'scientific bonanza' that would prove world leadership. Johnson knew that Project Apollo and an enlarged NASA were feasible, so he steered the recommendation towards a program for landing an American on the moon.
Two hours and 8 minutes after President Kennedy was shot two cars in front of him in a Dealey Plaza motorcade, Johnson was sworn in as President on Air Force One in Dallas at Love Field Airport on November 22, 1963. He was sworn in by Federal Judge Sarah T. Hughes, a family friend, making him the first President sworn in by a woman. He is also the only President to have been sworn in on Texas soil. Johnson was not sworn on a Bible, as none could be found aboard Air Force One; a Roman Catholic missal was discovered in Kennedy's desk, and this book was used during the swearing-in ceremony.
Johnson created a panel headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren, known as the Warren Commission, to investigate Kennedy's assassination. The commission conducted hearings and concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the assassination. Not everyone agreed with the Warren Commission, however, and numerous public and private investigations continued for decades after Johnson left office.
The wave of national grief following the assassination gave enormous momentum to Johnson's promise to carry out Kennedy's programs. He retained the senior Kennedy appointees, some for the full term of his presidency. Even the late President's brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, with whom Johnson had an infamously difficult relationship, remained in office until leaving in 1964 to run for the Senate.
In the summer of 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) was organized with the purpose of challenging Mississippi's all-white and anti-civil rights delegation to the Democratic National Convention of that year as not representative of all Mississippians. At the national convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey the MFDP claimed the seats for delegates for Mississippi, not on the grounds of the Party rules, but because the official Mississippi delegation had been elected by a primary conducted under Jim Crow laws in which blacks were excluded because of poll taxes, literacy tests, and even violence against black voters. The national Party’s liberal leaders supported a compromise in which the white delegation and the MFDP would have an even division of the seats; Johnson was concerned that, while the regular Democrats of Mississippi would probably vote for Goldwater anyway, if the Democratic Party rejected the regular Democrats, he would lose the Democratic Party political structure that he needed to win in the South. Eventually, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Reuther and black civil rights leaders (including Roy Wilkins, Martin Luther King, and Bayard Rustin) worked out a compromise with MFDP leaders: the MFDP would receive two non-voting seats on the floor of the Convention; the regular Mississippi delegation would be required to pledge to support the party ticket; and no future Democratic convention would accept a delegation chosen by a discriminatory poll. When the leaders took the proposal back to the 64 members who had made the bus trip to Atlantic City, they voted it down. As MFDP Vice Chair Fannie Lou Hamer said, "We didn't come all the way up here to compromise for no more than we’d gotten here. We didn't come all this way for no two seats, 'cause all of us is tired." The failure of the compromise effort allowed the rest of the Democratic Party to conclude that the MFDP was simply being unreasonable, and they lost a great deal of their liberal support. After that, the convention went smoothly for LBJ without a searing battle over civil rights. Despite the landslide victory, Johnson carried the South as a whole in the election, lost the Deep South states of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina, the first time a Democratic candidate had done so since Reconstruction.
In conjunction with the civil rights movement, Johnson overcame southern resistance and convinced Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed most forms of racial segregation. Johnson signed it into law on July 2, 1964. Legend has it that, as he put down his pen, Johnson told an aide, "We have lost the South for a generation," anticipating a coming backlash from Southern whites against Johnson's Democratic Party. In 1965, he achieved passage of a second civil rights bill, the Voting Rights Act, that outlawed discrimination in voting, thus allowing millions of southern blacks to vote for the first time.
In 1967, Johnson nominated civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall to be the first African American Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. After the murder of civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo, Johnson went on television to announce the arrest of four Ku Klux Klansmen implicated in her death. He angrily denounced the Klan as a "hooded society of bigots", and warned them to "return to a decent society before it's too late." He turned the themes of Christian redemption to push for civil rights, thereby mobilizing support from churches North and South. At the Howard University commencement address on June 4, 1965, he said that both the government and the nation needed to help achieve goals:
To shatter forever not only the barriers of law and public practice, but the walls which bound the condition of many by the color of his skin. To dissolve, as best we can, the antique enmities of the heart which diminish the holder, divide the great democracy, and do wrong — great wrong — to the children of God...
It was domestic issues that were driving his polls down steadily from spring 1966 onward. Analysts report that "Vietnam had no independent impact on President Johnson's popularity at all after other effects, including a general overall downward trend in popularity, had been taken into account.
He often privately cursed the Vietnam War, and in a conversation with Robert McNamara, Johnson assailed "the bunch of commies" running the New York Times for their articles against the war effort. Johnson believed that America could not afford to lose and risk appearing weak in the eyes of the world. In a discussion about the war with former President Dwight Eisenhower, Johnson said he was "trying to win it just as fast as I can in every way that I know how" and later stated that he needed "all the help I can get. Johnson escalated the war effort continuously from 1964 to 1968 and the number of American deaths rose. In two weeks in May 1968 alone American deaths numbered 1,800 with total casualties at 18,000. Alluding to the Domino Theory, he said, "If we allow Vietnam to fall, tomorrow we’ll be fighting in Hawaii, and next week in San Francisco." When reporters repeatedly pressed Johnson in late 1967 on why he was so committed to the war, Johnson exposed an old war wound to them and said, That is why.
After the Tet offensive of January 1968, his presidency was dominated by the Vietnam War more than ever. As casualties mounted and success seemed further away than ever, Johnson's popularity plummeted. College students and others protested, burned draft cards, and chanted, "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" Johnson could scarcely travel anywhere without facing protests, and was not allowed by the Secret Service to attend the 1968 Democratic National Convention, where hundreds of thousands of hippies, yippies, Black Panthers and other opponents of Johnson's policy both in Vietnam and in the ghettoes converged to protest. Thus by 1968, the public was polarized, with the "hawks" rejecting Johnson's refusal to win the war, and the "doves" rejecting his continuation of containment. Support for Johnson's middle position continued to shrink until he finally rejected containment and sought a peace settlement. By late summer, however, he realized that Nixon was closer to his position than Humphrey. However, he continued to support Humphrey publicly in the election, and personally despised Nixon. One of Johnson's well known quotes was "the Democratic party at its worst, is still better than the Republican party at its best".
Johnson had lost control of the Democratic Party, which was splitting into four factions, each of which despised the other three. The first comprised of Johnson (and Humphrey), labor unions, and local party bosses (led by Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley). The second group comprised of students and intellectuals who were vociferously against the war, and rallied behind McCarthy. The third group comprised of Catholics and African Americans; they rallied behind Robert Kennedy. The fourth group was traditional white Southerners, who rallied behind George C. Wallace and the American Independent Party. Vietnam was one of many issues that splintered the party and Johnson could see no way to unite the party long enough for him to win reelection.
In addition, Johnson was concerned that he might not make it through another term. Therefore, at the end of a March 31 speech, he shocked the nation when he announced he would not run for re-election: "I shall not seek, and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your President. He did rally the party bosses and unions to give Humphrey the nomination. In what was termed the October surprise, Johnson announced to the nation on October 31, 1968, that he had ordered a complete cessation of "all air, naval and artillery bombardment of North Vietnam", effective November 1, should the Hanoi Government be willing to negotiate and citing progress with the Paris peace talks.
LBJ was not disqualified from running for a second full term under the provisions of the 22nd Amendment; he had served less than 24 months of President Kennedy's term. Had he stayed in the race and won and served out the new term, he would have been president for 9 years, second only to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It is worth noting, however, that Johnson died suddenly, only two days after the end of this hypothetical term, and thus, with hindsight, the prospect of him dying in office appears real.
|The Johnson Cabinet|
|President||Lyndon B. Johnson||1963–1969|
|Treasury||C. Douglas Dillon||1963–1965|
|Henry H. Fowler||1965–1968|
|Joseph W. Barr||1968–1969|
|Clark M. Clifford||1968–1969|
|Justice||Robert F. Kennedy||1963–1964|
|Nicholas deB. Katzenbach||1964–1966|
|Postmaster General||John A. Gronouski||1963–1965|
|W. Marvin Watson||1968–1969|
|Interior||Stewart Lee Udall||1963–1969|
|Agriculture||Orville Lothrop Freeman||1963–1969|
|Commerce||Luther Hartwell Hodges||1963–1965|
|John Thomas Connor||1965–1967|
|Alexander Buel Trowbridge||1967–1968|
|Cyrus Rowlett Smith||1968–1969|
|Labor||W. Willard Wirtz||1963–1969|
|John William Gardner||1965–1968|
|Wilbur Joseph Cohen||1968–1969|
|HUD||Robert Clifton Weaver||1966–1968|
|Robert Coldwell Wood||1969|
|Transportation||Alan Stephenson Boyd||1967–1969|
Johnson died at 4:33 p.m. on January 22, 1973, from a third heart attack at his ranch, at age 64. His health had been affected by years of heavy smoking and stress; the former president had severe heart disease. He had suffered a second heart attack in April 1972, but had been unable to quit smoking. He was found by Secret Service agents, in his bed, with a phone in his hand. (The Age, 23 January, 1973, pg 1)
The final services took place on January 25. The funeral was held at the National City Christian Church in Washington, D.C., where he had often worshiped at as president. The service was presided over by President Richard Nixon and attended by foreign dignitaries such as former Japanese prime minister Eisaku Satō, who served as Japanese prime minister during Johnson's presidency. Eulogies were given by the Rev. Dr. George Davis, the church's pastor, and W. Marvin Watson, former postmaster general. Nixon did not speak, though he attended, as is customary for presidents during state funerals, but the eulogists turned to him and lauded him for his tributes, as Rusk did the day before.
Johnson was buried in his family cemetery (which can be viewed today by visitors to the Lyndon B. Johnson National Park in Stonewall, Texas), a few yards from the house in which he was born. Eulogies were given by John Connally and the Rev. Billy Graham, the minister who officiated the burial rites. The state funeral, the last until Ronald Reagan's in 2004, capped off an unexpectedly busy week in Washington, as the Military District of Washington (MDW) dealt with their second major task in less than a week. Colonel J. Edward Melanson Jr., MDW public affairs chief, reacted: "We're finding out we're made of rubber." The week began with Nixon's second inauguration.
The Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas, was renamed the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, and Texas created a legal state holiday to be observed on August 27 to mark LBJ's birthday. It is known as Lyndon Baines Johnson Day. The Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove on the Potomac was dedicated on September 27, 1974.
Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 1980.
Runway 17R/35L at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport is known as the LBJ Runway.
2008 is the celebration of the LBJ Centennial featuring special programs, events, and parties across Texas and in Washington, D.C. LBJ would have been 100 years old on August 27, 2008.